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Women wrestle for college opportunities

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Updated: August 11, 2017

By Mike Finn

Note: The following story appeared in the July 9 issue of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine (WIN). Click here to subscribe to WIN.

Stefana Jelacic knows something about being a pioneer. That happened this past July 17 when she became the first girl from the state of Arizona to capture a Cadet or Junior National championship in Fargo, N.D.

“I’m proud of myself and thankful for those encouraging me,” said Jelacic, who calls Fountain Hills home back in Arizona. “I hope women’s wrestling grows in our state and now they can say they have a national champion.”

Stefana Jelacic of Fountain Hills, AZ defeated Viktorya Torres of Granger, WA to win the 112-pound Cadet National championship in July. (G. Wyatt Schultz photo)

Jelacic was the only Cadet woman from Arizona entered in this year’s Fargo experience, but that is nothing new for the sophomore-to-be at Mesa Mountainview High School, who said she has a good training situation with the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club in nearby Tempe, the home of Arizona State University.

And while she has her eyes set on attending an Ivy League college someday, she said there was one thing that might keep her in the Valley: wrestling for the Sun Devils.

“I would jump at it,” said the 112-pound champion.

With several groups trying to grow women’s wrestling on the NCAA Division I level, that momentum may mean it could one day come true.

“It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when,” said Zeke Jones, the head coach of the men’s wrestling team at Arizona State and a growing proponent of men’s coaches who believe it’s time for women to wrestle at the highest level in college.

“Our athletic director Ray Anderson has added five sports, two men’s sports and three women’s sports,” said Jones. “If it’s every going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen at ASU because of the partnership between Arizona State and the Sunkist Wrestling Club. I believe they have already had discussions about it.”

The school has done a lot more. Arizona State was one of 10 NCAA membership schools that committed to starting a varsity program when Sally Roberts of the Wrestle Like A Girl organization played a big role in officially asking the NCAA to give women’s wrestling Emerging Sport Status.

Sally Roberts of “Wrestle Like A Girl” has been instrumental in growing the sport on both the college and high school level for women. (Victoria Diaz photo)

“We (at Wrestle Like A Girl) have four pillars,” said Roberts. “We do empowerment camps, high school state sanctioning by trying to get the 44 states that do not sponsor girls’ wrestling to make that happen.

“We are building women’s wrestling to emerging sport status and using wrestling as a manner of self-defense so that girls can recognize that they can build self-confidence as they go through hardships of life because of a wrestler’s mentality.”

What makes ASU unique is that the other schools that committed to this emerging sport status are either in Div. II or Div. III and are among 35 total programs — others competing on the NAIA or NJCAA level — that already have varsity programs and compete in the Women’s College Wrestling Association.

And it may take somewhere between two to ten years before the NCAA granted wrestling such a status.

“In wrestling terms, we have just made weight and now we have to go wrestle our matches,” said Roberts, the 2003 World bronze medalist who started Wrestle Like A Girl in 2016 once she completed her military service in the Army and spends much of her time — as a volunteer — reaching out to college administrators.

“We have to lobby the women’s committee (see page 29) and talk to the different divisions and make sure they understand what the benefits will be. They need to know what the numbers look like so they can vote on including women’s wrestling as a championship sport,” said Roberts, who said other highly-ranked men’s college programs have shown interest in addition to Arizona State.

“(Iowa coach) Tom Brands called me personally and said, ‘What can I do to help you push this effort? And that this is our agenda too. He said the Iowa Hawkeyes have always embraced wrestling and know that women’s wrestling deserves support.”

READ TOM BRANDS & IOWA’S SUPPORT LETTER FOR WOMEN’S COLLEGE WRESTLING

Of course, there would be a lot more questions to answer if current Division I programs add women’s wrestling, including making room in the wrestling room … even if women wrestle in the fall (which is what Roberts’ group is proposing.)

“If you look at men’s and women’s wrestling at the highest level, they are both year-round sports,” said Jones, the former USA men’s Senior national freestyle coach. “It would be similar to the OTC where you would schedule different practice times or you would have a bigger facility where both teams could practice at the same time.”

HOW USA WRESTLING IS SUPPORTING WOMEN’S COLLEGE WRESTLING

USA Wrestling, Wrestlers in Business and the National Wrestling Coaches Association are also heavily involved in campaigning to grow women’s wrestling on both the college and high school level.

“Our role was to put together a Blue Ribbon Task Force for high school wrestling,” said Mike Moyer, the executive director of the NWCA, who believes their efforts will help both the males and females in wrestling.

“We have to stop the declining participation trend in boys’ wrestling while fostering the growth of girls’ wrestling,” said Moyer, well aware that while the number of high school girls wrestling has doubled in the past six years, boys’ wrestling participation has dropped nationwide.

“We can’t start too many more college programs until we accelerate the number of high school programs because it’s all about filling those rosters,” said Moyer, who also is helping to develop more coaches in women’s wrestling by creating scholarship opportunities for such coaches to attend the NWCA National Coaches Convention.

One of the bigger problems in creating more high school wrestling programs is that each state has its own governing body.

“We are working with 44 states, which means 44 separate legislative entities and we have to determine what are their challenges,” said Roberts. “Is it legislative? Is it numbers? Is it funding? Is it perception? Once we understand what is each state’s challenge, we can build a campaign around that.”

There also is the question of what style of wrestling women would compete in: folkstyle or freestyle.

“Some of the challenges we have to overcome if high school programs go with freestyle is that we have to prepare those governing bodies to default to international rules,” Moyer said. “But international wrestling changes rules frequently, while high school does not change as much.

“Plus, a lot of our high school coaches are not proficient in freestyle.”

Roberts is well aware of the challenges women’s wrestling faces with those who are not aware of the growth of women’s wrestling and the benefits the sport provides.

That is one reason Roberts and Wrestle Like A Girl sponsored the Glitter Into Gold Gala, which took place in Colorado on July 29.

Members of the 2017 Cadet World women’s freestyle team appeared at the Turning Glitter Into Gold gala that took place in July. (Victoria Diaz photo)

“After traveling around the United States and asking people about what were their major contentions about women’s wrestling, the No. 1 response I got back is perception,” said Roberts, who added that the United World Wrestling is also studying this dilemma.

“People ask, ‘Why do women wrestle? Who do they think they are? So one of the biggest challenges I had was what could I do to change the perception of women’s wrestling.

“One of the things we came up with as an organization was to put on a gala to promote all the amazing attributes about women’s wrestling that go unnoticed. We’re women wrestlers and we’re no longer wearing singlets, but have their hair was up. We’re highlighting that (women wrestlers) are amazing, intelligent athletes who contribute to the sport and do so many good things and so we could change the perception or what it means to be a female wrestler.”

That was a big reason why Roberts gave the organization a unique name.

“I’ve heard more than few times that, “Ooo, you wrestle like a girl,’ ” said Roberts.

“That should not be a negative comment. I am a girl, I am a World medalist. I’ve had a lot of success and I’m really proud of that. How can I change that ideology from a negative phrase to a positive thought?

“We’re working to change the perception of what it means to wrestle like a girl.”

And hoping that both high school and college programs also learn the definition of women’s wrestling.

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